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Cupich apologizes for ‘my poor choice of words’ on priest sex abuse crisis

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich speaks at Holy Name Cathedral for a special mass to address recent sexual abuse scandals on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, in Chicago. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Weeks after making remarks to news reporters that seemed to minimize the Catholic Church’s priest sex abuse crisis — and insisting his words were taken out of context — Cardinal Blase Cupich is now saying he used a “poor choice of words” and apologized “for the offense caused by my comments.”

“It was a mistake for me to even mention that the church has a bigger agenda than responding to the charges in the letter by former papal nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano,” Cupich said in an op-ed published by the Chicago Tribune.

Vigano released an explosive letter late last month contending, among other things, that Pope Francis knew of alleged sexual misconduct by disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick — who has been accused of sexually preying on adult seminarians as well as children — but allowed McCarrick to continue in ministry and serve as an influential adviser.

Pope Francis reaches out to hug Cardinal Archbishop emeritus Theodore McCarrick after the Midday Prayer of the Divine with more than 300 U.S. Bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington in 2015. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via AP, Pool, File)

Pope Francis reaches out to hug Cardinal Archbishop emeritus Theodore McCarrick at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington in 2015. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via AP)

Cupich gave a series of media interviews Aug. 27 as Vigano’s claims gained attention. In an interview with NBC5, Cupich said for the pope “to get into each and every one of those aspects, in some way is inappropriate and, secondly, the pope has a bigger agenda. He’s gotta get on with other things, of talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the church. We’re not going to go down a rabbit hole on this.”

Those remarks went viral, causing an uproar as they were seen as dismissive of the sex abuse crisis, in which Catholic priests around the globe were found to have molested children over the years and many bishops covered up the crimes.

Cupich later insisted he was referring to Vigano’s allegations, not the larger sex abuse issue involving children, and ordered that priests across the Chicago region read a statement to that effect at weekend masses. He said he was the victim of selective editing by NBC5, which then posted raw video footage of the interview and said it stood by its story.

The just-published op-ed in the Tribune still appears to find Cupich standing by his contention that he was referring to Vigano’s claims — which also included accusations that McCarrick encouraged the pope to appoint Cupich to the church’s top Chicago post in 2014 – though Cupich now says he didn’t choose his words well.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S., listens to remarks at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual fall meeting in Baltimoremin 2015. File Photo. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S., listens to remarks at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual fall meeting in 2015. File Photo. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

“What I should have said, because it has been my conviction throughout my ministry, is that nothing is more important for the church than protecting young people. I apologize for the offense caused by my comments. It pains me deeply to think that my poor choice of words may have added to the suffering of victim-survivors. For they … deserve our admiration for calling us to purge the church of this evil.”

Cupich’s op-ed didn’t mention he made similar remarks that were likewise regarded as insensitive in an Aug. 29 closed-door meeting with about 200 men studying to be priests at Mundelein Seminary — and he clearly was not referring to Vigano at the time, sources told the Chicago Sun-Times.

One source said Cupich told the group that while the church’s “agenda” certainly involves protecting kids from harm, “we have a bigger agenda than to be distracted by all of this,” including helping the homeless and sick.

Cupich also fielded questions and comments from the seminarians at the gathering. After one of them said the sex abuse crisis was so distressing to him that he had trouble sleeping, Cupich responded, “I feel very much at peace at this moment. I am sleeping OK,” according to sources.

Neither Cupich nor his top press aide Paula Waters would answer questions from the Sun-Times on Thursday.

Among the outstanding questions: Given that Cupich is now apologizing for his Aug. 27 comments, was he right to have ordered priests throughout the Archdiocese of Chicago — the church’s arm in Cook and Lake counties — to read the statement regarding the NBC5 report at masses?

Cupich’s Tribune piece also says the archdiocese has “begun reviewing records of members of religious orders who are residing in the archdiocese.”

Cardinal Blase Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, speaks to the City Club of Chicago in 2017. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Cardinal Blase Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

That comment is in apparent response to recent Sun-Times disclosures that the archdiocese didn’t tell anyone that an Augustinian priest, the Rev. Richard McGrath, had moved into a South Side monastery across the alley from a preschool and around the corner from a Catholic school even though he was under investigation in Will County for child pornography and sex abuse.

After the Sun-Times posted a story last week, the cardinal wrote to the St. Thomas the Apostle School community, seeming to blame the Augustinian order for not fully informing the archdiocese of the allegations against McGrath. The cardinal wrote that his office had only known about allegedly “inappropriate material” on McGrath’s phone – failing to explain why that wasn’t enough to alert parents and neighbors.

Cupich told the St. Thomas community that he’s now asked the Augustinians to move McGrath, and they agreed.

Neither Cupich’s office nor the Augustinians will say where McGrath is moving.

Cupich said in his op-ed that the archdiocese “will make necessary changes to our process of review when a religious order notifies us that one of their members has moved into the archdiocese.”

Waters indicated earlier in the week via email that reviews for order priests accused of sexual misconduct and living under Cupich’s jurisdiction — whether Augustinians, Franciscans, Jesuits or others — are “done on a regular basis.”

But Waters refused to reveal how many – if any – accused priests regardless of their affiliation are living in Cook and Lake counties, even though Cupich’s op-ed discussed the importance of transparency in tackling what he described as “this terrible scandal.”

Said Waters: “We do not have anyone available to do your research.”

RELATED: Cupich’s homily on priest sex abuse

On Sept. 15, Cupich addressed the sex abuse scandal during a special Mass at Holy Name Cathedral. Here is video of his full homily: